Follow Harriet on Twitter
In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoveen there were men and women (1944)
“In her very truly great manners of Johannes Brahms very heroically Sara Powell Haardt had very allegorically come amongst his very really grand men and women to Clarence Day, Jr., John Donne, Ruggiero Leoncavalo, James Owen Hannay, Gustav Frenssen, Thomas Beer, Joris Karl Huysmans and Franz Peter Schubert very titanically.” – John Barton Wolgamot
MP3: Robert Ashley In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoveen there were men and women (1972)
PDF: Full Poem & Text
The amazing story after the jump..
JOHN BARTON Wolgamot
by Keith Waldrop
On Wednesday, May 23rd, 1973, Robert Ashley and I went to see John Barton Wolgamot. We met and talked to him in the lobby of the Little Carnegie Cinema, of which he was the manager. I hold on to this date, because so many moments I would like to pin down are imprecise or uncertain.
For instance, I do not know when Wolgamot was born. At the time we met, I got the impression he was in his sixties. Tall and thin, in a black suit with a velvet collar. He was an old-fashioned spiffy dresser, a bit too aristocratic to look right on fifty-seventh street-except, perhaps, down at the end of the block, in Carnegie Hall.
Sometime in the summer of 1957, I had stumbled onto his book, In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. I am given to scratching around in second-hand book stores. My brothers had recently started a used car lot in Danville, Illinois, and a crony of theirs ran a second-hand book store. Naturally, I scratched around in it.
As I went along the shelves, Wolgamot’s book-odd-shaped, wider than tall-caught my eye. The publisher’s name, like the author’s, was John Barton Wolgamot. At a glance, I could make nothing of it. I put it back.
I went away. But it stuck in my mind, the book with the odd shape, and I went back and (actually on my third visit) I bought the book. It was, after all, only fifty cents.
Blue cloth binding: four and three-quarter inches tall by seven and three-quarter inches wide. Published in 1944. The right margin is unjustified in a way that suggests verse-but it is clearly prose. The first thing one notices, opening the book, is clusters of names-names of men and women, most of them writers, many well known. But then, even more striking, it becomes obvious that each page contains only one sentence, and it is always-except for the names-almost the same sentence.
From that summer, through some rather unsettled years, as other books came in and out of my hands, I held on to Wolgamot, unsure if it was good or bad, wonderful or ridiculous. The question gradually faded. After all, it appealed to me and, since I never really believed in a “canon” and never insisted that anyone share my appreciation, there was no problem.
I occasionally showed the book to other people, a few other people, mostly-when I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan-fellow students.
Mostly, but not all. My first friend in Ann Arbor (a clerk in a local bookstore) was Gordon Mumma, who introduced me to Robert Ashley. The two of them later, with Roger Reynolds, George Cacciopo, and Don Scavarda, founded the music festival called Once.
“Wolgamot” became a society (it would be a bit too much to say organization) when several friends and I wanted to give events-theatrical, we called them-on campus and had to give our group a name. We gave Ubu Roi (translating it as Gopotty Rex); we gave Grabbe’s Comedy, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning; The Talking Ass by John Heath-Stubbs; Paul Goodman’s Jonah. (Ashley and Mumma supplied music for Jonah.)
We tried our best then-we were, after all, supposed to be scholars-to locate our hero, the author of In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. It had been published by the author, no place of publication mentioned, but I found a reference that gave an address where, some fifteen years before, it had been advertised as available, an address in New York.
Unfortunately, at that address-a building housing several printers-no one recalled the name Wolgamot.
From another source, I found listed-for 1943, one year before our text-a book by the same author, called In Sara Haardt Were Men and Women. It had been published by Richard R. Smith, a vanity press, then in the Village. A little research yielded a new address for Smith in Peterborough, N.H., and I ordered, from Richard R. Smith directly, two copies of the book-listed (back then) as selling for two dollars.
The publisher answered (which I had not altogether expected), saying that there was in fact only one copy left. For this survivor, he demanded four dollars-which I sent immediately.
The book I then received was the same shape as the one I already had (but a bit larger). The striking thing was that the two texts, except for the title page, were identical. It seemed, indeed, to have been printed from the same plates.
Now the Mencken Bibliography, I found, revealed that Wolgamot had sent both books to Mencken, whose copies had been left to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, along with the rest of the late critic’s library.
As in many of his books, Mencken had jotted into them his reactions. In one, he complained that Wolgamot “was writing this balderdash even before Sara died.” This had prompted him to get on the phone and demand to know, “Wolgamot, are you crazy?” To which the author had replied (as Mencken put it, “unpreturbed”), “No. I am quite sane. I just like to write that way.” About Wolgamot and his work, everybody who looked at the book seemed to have a theory. A psychoanalyst (local, but with roots in Vienna) was sure the author must be schizophrenic, probably in an institution, certainly unable to function in any job at all. D. C. Hope caused some disturbance by claiming, in a public lecture at Wayne State University, that Wolgamot was the reincarnation of Doctor Johnson.
Robert Ashley, at first glance, seemed dazzled and declared that here was the book he had always wanted to write.
Mary Ashley called it a “festival of names” and proceeded to make her own festival with Truck: a Dance.
I got into the act with at least two harebrained claims. One was simple: I maintained that the volumes I had found so far were the first two of a trilogy, which would be completed with one more volume-with, again, the same text, from the same plates. A trilogy of great formal unity.
My second theory, more complicated, was based on the fact that although every page of the book contains one and the same (and only one) sentence, there are certain irregularities. The very first page refers to the “cruelly ancestral death of Sara Powell Haardt.” The last page mentions the Second Coming. There is also, elsewhere, “Wolgamot as God,” and what could be taken as an identification of Mencken and Beethoven. Mencken, I found, had married Sara Powell Haardt, knowing she was about to die. (She lived, in fact, after marriage, five more years, which no one had expected.) I claimed that the work was a funeral piece for Sara Powell Haardt, intimating, however, that while Sara was Mencken’s on earth, she was Wolgamot’s in eternity.
It was generally conceded that my theories were the unlikeliest. Looking back, it seems to me that the crazier the reading, the more likely it was to have some relevance, whereas the psychoanalyst (and, perhaps, Hope-if taken literally) were wrong. At one point, we cast toothpicks to determine hexagrams, with which to consult the I Ching. Our question: was Wolgamot still alive? The answer, given at length, we found unequivocal. Wolgamot was alive, but in decline.
Rosmarie and I visited an old friend in Urbana and mentioned the establishment of the John Barton Wolgamot Society. My friend said, “I know somebody named Wolgamot.”
“Really? What’s his first name?”
“Bart.” Though he was obviously too young to be our Wolgamot, I insisted that she find out if he was related.
A week later-we were back in Michigan-she wrote that she had quizzed this Bart, a music student at the University of Michigan, and found that John Barton Wolgamot was his uncle. And-he had added- “…not my favorite one.”
Thus, after long and fruitless search, we found, quite by accident, Wolgamot’s address, a hotel in New York, on Broadway at a Hundred and Fourth Street. James Camp and X. J. Kennedy were taking a trip to New York. I charged them to visit Wolgamot.
They got to the door of the hotel . . . and turned back, deciding (in, I suppose, a truly great manner) that-as they put it-he should “remain a legend.”
Then, at a party at Ingo Seidler’s house, Wolgamot’s name came up and I admitted I knew his phone number: Monument six one thousand. Ingo immediately put the phone by me and said, “Call him. Invite him to come and read.” I called person-to-person, heard the clerk answer, and heard the operator say, “There’s a call for Mr. John Wolgamot.” And the hotel clerk said: “Wolgamot?! Is it paid for?”
I hadn’t realized how late it was-I had awakened him-and I asked if he would come read his work at the University of Michigan, to which he replied, “Work? What work?” I said In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women. He said, “Ohhhh” and then, “I thought that book had died the death.” He declined our invitation. Later it became clear he didn’t believe in readings.
Soon after I came to Providence, Bob Ashley wrote from Mills College, where he had spent several years building an electronic music studio. He told me he had written no music for a long time because-his letter said-he had been purifying himself. Now, he said, “I am pure.” And ready to write his masterpiece. But the one text he had to have was lacking. The work could only be based on Wolgamot.
I sent him the text.
The premiere of Ashley’s In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women took place in Bremen. He later performed it here and there on the West Coast. When it was scheduled for New York, it occurred to him that he had never asked Wolgamot-or anybody, except me!-for permission to use the text.
The composition includes, in fact, the entire text of Wolgamot’s book. Finding that he could speak any one page without taking a breath, he recorded a page, took a breath, recorded another . . . When the whole book was on tape, he went back and cut out every between-page breath.
Before a performance in Southern California, a woman appeared, to ask if that title-which she had seen on a poster-might possibly refer to a book by John Barton Wolgamot.
Ashley was startled, but stammered an affirmative.
The woman was delighted. She revealed that, at the very time the book was being written, she had been an intimate of the author-in fact his “only confidante.” When she learned that the piece was going to New York, Bob must, she insisted, make contact with Wolgamot. She was sure Wolgamot would be pleased.
Now that she thought of it, Wolgamot must already be aware, subliminally, of the piece’s existence. (This did not make Bob less nervous.) Yes-the remembrance animated her-when, just a few weeks ago, she had lunch with Wolgamot, in New York, he said (these, absolutely, his exact words) he did believe something was “in the wind.”
And she, for her part, figured that he-Wolgamot-might now, “after years of self-imposed obscurity,” be “ready for a little fame.” Ashley, relieved, saw that she was going. But, the door open, her hand on the knob, she turned again, to say how happy she was to know that Ashley was going to contact Wolgamot. And, just before disappearing, closing the door behind her,
“Oh-and, by the way . . .
“You’d better bone up on the Eroica.”
A bit later, he gave me a frantic call, because he had gotten in contact with Wolgamot, and had made an appointment to see him. And, he said, “I can’t go alone!” So I said, “All right, I’ll come to New York and go with you.”
My train was an hour late, so when I got to the movie house-the Little Carnegie-Ashley was already there, and the first thing Wolgamot had said to him was, “Are you the person who called me in the middle of the night ten years ago?” And Ashley said, “Oh, no, no no-that was Keith Waldrop!”
Ashley had done a formal analysis of the book, in an elaborate chart, showing that the book is in four movements-there was no sign of this, no markings-four movements of equal length. I was not entirely convinced. But the first thing Wolgamot said was, “You realize, this is in four movements.” And Ashley immediately brought out his chart, which Wolgamot wouldn’t look at. Just as he had no interest at all in hearing the composition.
He said it was hard to imagine reading his book out loud. “I suppose,” he said, “it would have to be a sort of”-he hesitated, considered-“well, a breathless reading.”
He had written two books, he told us, and was working on a third. “My first book was a complete failure.” He had had the edition destroyed. “The second began to gallop.” And then he murmured, “But wait till you see the next.”
He had been working for thirty-odd years on his third book. I asked, hesitantly, if the third would have . . . for text . . . ?
“Oh,” he said, “same text, same text.” But a brand new title page. In 1929, Wolgamot said, he heard for the first time Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. He was bowled over. And as he listened, rapt, he heard, somehow, within the rhythms themselves, names-names that meant nothing to him, foreign names. It was these names, he realized, that created the rhythm, bearing the melody into existence.
He checked out from the library a large biography of Beethoven. And in that tome, he found, one after another, all the names he had heard ringing through the symphony.
And it dawned on him that, as rhythm is the basis of all things, names are the basis of rhythm.
Names determine character, settle destiny. “You can see that in the great novels,” he says. “Take Tolstoy. What does this remind you of: Annaka rennina annaka rennina?-it’s a train, of course. That’s why she’s killed by a train.”
“That’s why,” he said, “when a woman marries and gives up her name, she gives up her personality.”
Wolgamot decided-about 1930-to write a book.
He wrote one name to a page.
But he knew it could be richer. Names react to one another. He made long lists of names and held the list next to the pages of his projected book. When certain names came near each other, there was, he said, “a spark,” and that was how he knew they went together. In this way, three names gathered on each page, and then around those three clustered multitudes of names.
And still something was lacking. Each page rhythmically complete, there was no impulse to go from one page to the next. There had to be a matrix, a sentence, to envelop the names. So far, he had spent a year or two composing his book. The sentence, a sentence to be repeated, more or less identically, on each page-this sentence took him ten years to write.
“It’s harder than you think,” he said, “to write a sentence that doesn’t say anything.”
I asked him if he had ever met Mencken. He said he hadn’t but, “I talked to him on the phone once.” I said I supposed, then, he had never met Sara Powell Haardt, and I could see Ashley was remembering my silly theory. And Wolgamot said, “No, I never met Sara Powell Haardt. I used her name, because her last name’s Haardt and my middle name’s Bart.” But he went on, “Of course, in the book, I represent myself as having an illicit relation with her. In a book like this, there has to be some love interest.”
I kept telling him I was a printer. He never responded. He said his third book, he thought probably should be published by a commercial press, and asked if I knew anything about October House. “It’s not a communist front, is it?” Since it was obvious he knew nothing about this (by then already defunct) press, I asked him how he had chanced on it. He seemed to think it perfectly obvious: “October’s the tenth month, but it means eight. And ‘house’ has five letters. 1805-that’s the year of the Eroica!”
He said he had had both books destroyed. He was sure there could not be more than a couple dozen copies all told. (Besides the two mentioned above, I had found a second copy of the later book, the one I sent to Ashley.)
After the interview, Ashley tried to keep in touch with Wolgamot, who did visit a few times, and once took Ashley and Mimi Johnson to the Russian Tea Room. But the Little Carnegie was torn down, and working for a different movie house, somewhere in the suburbs, Wolgamot became less sociable.
So it was rather unexpected to find, when Wolgamot died, that in his will he had appointed Ashley his literary executor. Ashley was supposed to receive the contents of a safety-deposit box, which we assumed would contain the plates for the book-since Wolgamot had told us he still had the plates. After some legal folderol, the contents of the box were delivered. It contained nothing but stamping for the title of a book: the title, Beacons of Ancestorship. This we took to refer to the third book, but I now run across a letter from 1980, where he seems to be abandoning that book for a completely new project:
I’m doing a piece of fiction that embodies the ancestral theme and think well of it so far as it’s gone. This is pretty far-the current draft has only six pages to go.
As far as I know, nothing of this fiction survives.
Wolgamot was certainly never satisfied with any of his books. He told Ashley that in In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women there were two names he would like to change: Pissarro and Thespis-apparently because he was bothered by the first syllable of one and the second syllable of the other. He had impossibly high standards. Every page had to give him the experience that he had once gotten in reading his own text (this is from the same letter):
Near the very end, at the bottom of the Corot page, you could hear Beethoven speak. Loud and clear and in English.